August 25, 1980 12:00 PM

Before a recent Orioles baseball game, a curly-haired man of medium height locked his metallic blue Porsche and headed for the players’ entrance at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. An elderly usher blocked his path. “I’m Steve Stone,” the man volunteered. The usher looked blank. “I’m pitching tonight,” the man continued. Still dubious, the usher let him pass.

Until this season stadium ushers weren’t the only ones skeptical about Steve Stone. He had a reputation as a gourmet, ladies’ man, restaurateur and even poet, but on the mound he was strictly so-so, with a lifetime record of 78-79 to prove it. Yet now, at 33, he is among the top pitchers in the majors, just a few Stone’s throws from his first 20-game year. He is a leading contender for the Cy Young Award.

How to explain the turnabout? “Drugs,” explains Stone straight-faced. Relax, Commissioner, he’s only kidding. “I had to give up the idea that I was a mediocre pitcher,” says Steve, with greater seriousness—probably. “I realigned my thought processes and eliminated the negatives.” Stone also credits Oriole pitching coach Ray Miller with two helpful suggestions: quickening his pace so the fielders would stay alert between pitches and finding his best pitch in the early innings and sticking with it. Usually it’s the curve ball.

Superstition has its place, too. Every time Stone pitches a home game, he has breakfast at a local pancake house with Baltimore sportswriter Peter Pascarelli. Since this tradition began last season, Stone has lost only four of his 38 starts. In the afternoon before a game he visualizes precisely how he will retire each batter, then leaves for the ballpark. He always stops at the same drive-in for a chocolate milkshake and listens to the same soft-rock tape on his car stereo.

Stone almost left baseball four years ago when a shoulder injury sidelined him. He was playing for the Chicago Cubs, and when the team physician prescribed cortisone shots and surgery, Stone balked. Eventually a kinesiologist at the University of Illinois put him through an intensive weight-lifting program to rebuild his shoulder.

Faced with his mortality as an athlete, Stone plunged into the restaurant business in the off-season. For six years he was a partner in Lettuce Entertain You, which runs nine restaurants in the Chicago area. He recently sold his share because he and longtime friend Bill Frost will open a moderate-priced, high-class eatery, called Steven, in Scottsdale, Ariz. this fall. “When you go out for a gourmet meal,” says Stone, “the check for two comes to $75. We’re going to cut that bill down to…oh, $72 or $73.”

Stone got his basic training in the restaurant business at his Uncle Ralph’s Welcome Tavern in Euclid, Ohio, where his mother waitressed. His dad was a jukebox repairman. Growing up in South Euclid, Steve shot a hole-in-one at age 11 and won a Cleveland tennis title at 13. In 1965 he was the winning pitcher in a state high school all-star game. “I always pitch well in All-Star games,” laughs Steve, referring to last month’s big league version, where he set down the first nine National League batters in order.

Stone graduated from Kent State with a degree in history and government, signing with the San Francisco Giants during his senior year. He married a girl he had known since high school in 1970 and was divorced two years later. “I’d like to say the split was amiable,” laments Steve, “but then I’d also like to say I’ve won 25 games.”

These days Stone is an active bachelor. At a recent charity auction for Johns Hopkins’ Children’s Center put on by the Oriole players’ wives, a 24-year-old schoolteacher bid $1,300 for a date with him. “My No. 1 goal has been to make myself the best pitcher I can be,” he asserts, “not to settle down.” Still, he admits it was a “sobering experience” when he had an extra ticket for the All-Star game and could not think of anyone to invite.

Having played on four teams in 10 seasons Stone calls himself “a highly paid hobo.” His current four-year contract with the Orioles—for $730,000 plus $80,000 in contingency bonuses—helped buy a three-story townhouse in suburban Towson, Md. It’s bright and clean but sparsely furnished, as if its owner is just passing through. While at home, Stone writes free-form poetry, which has been published in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, National Jewish Monthly and some newspapers.

Stone will spend the off-season in Scottsdale. If Steven (the restaurant) flops, then Steven (the ballplayer) “will just have to pitch until he’s 45,” vows his partner, Bill. During a season like this one, that’s not such a bad prospect—even press attention is fun. “I was just as intelligent two years ago, certainly as witty, and I’ve always loved to talk,” Stone says. “Now, people are listening.”

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